Sixty years ago, the book Charlotte's Web first appeared in print. This children's classic is often seen as a story of a spider and a pig. But when E.B. White recorded a narration of the book, he said something different: "This is a story of the barn. I wrote it for children, and to amuse myself."
And the way he describes it, Homer Zuckerman's barn is a character with its own, complex personality — smelling of hay and manure, of grain and axle grease and new boots and fish heads for the barn cats, but mostly hay, which was a familiar smell to White. He grew up in a New York City suburb at a time when people rode horses and carriages, and his parents had a stable.
"His favorite thing was to care for animals," says author Michael Sims. "Chickens, ducks, mice, dogs of course." Sims is the author of The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic.
"In 1933, [White] and his wife, Katharine Angell, moved to Maine, bought a farm and settled into a whole different kind of life that brought back all of the favorite joys of childhood," Sims says.
And it was White's experiences in his own barn that led him to the story of Charlotte and her web. "One of the pigs he was raising died," Sims says, "and while he was carrying the pails of slops every day to the replacement pig in the barn, he noticed there was a spider attending its web every day, expanding the web, rebuilding what had happened the night before, and then one day he saw that it had spun an egg case."
When White had to go back to New York City, he cut down the spider's egg case and took it with him. Eventually the baby spiders hatched, and after that, White finished spinning his now-famous tale. And in 1970, he sat down in a studio to record the narration.
"He, of course, as anyone does doing an audio book, had to do several takes for various things, just to get it right," Sims says. "But every time, he broke down when he got to Charlotte's death. And he would do it, and it would mess up. ... He took 17 takes to get through Charlotte's death without his voice cracking or beginning to cry."
In a poll of librarians, teachers, publishers and authors, the trade magazine Publisher's Weekly asked for a list of the best children's books ever published in the United States. Hands down, the No. 1 book was E.B. White's Charlotte's Web. Now, a new book called The Story of Charlotte's Web explores how White's masterpiece came to be.
One early fall morning in 1949, E.B. White walked into the barn of his farm in Maine and saw a spider web. That in itself was nothing new, but this web, with its elaborate loops and whorls that glistened with early morning dew, caught his attention. Weeks passed until one cold October evening when he noticed that the spider was spinning what turned out to be an egg sac. White never saw the spider again and, so, when he had to return later that fall to New York City to his job as a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine, White took out a razor blade and cut the silken egg sac out of the web. He put the sac in an empty candy box, punched some holes in it, and absent-mindedly put the box atop his bedroom bureau in New York.
Weeks later, a movement on that bureau alerted him to the fact that tiny spiderlings were making a Great Escape through the air holes. White was delighted at this affirmation of life and left the hundreds of barn spiderlings alone for the next week or so — to spin webs from his hair brush to his nail scissors to his mirror — until, finally, the cleaning lady complained.
Thus was hatched the idea for Charlotte's Web, White's magical meditation on the passage of time, mortality and the great gift of finding a "true friend" in this world. However, as Michael Sims tells us in his wonderful new book called The Story of Charlotte's Web, there was also a much longer incubation period for White's classic — a period that began with his isolated childhood as the youngest of seven children; the snappy creative bustle of the New York newspaper world in the 1920s, which gave White his career and his writing role models; and White's own lifelong struggle with anxiety. That anxiety was soothed, in part, by writing and by the company of animals (except, that is, for rats — take that, Templeton!). If you love Charlotte's Web — and, please, if you don't, just get help now! — Sims' lively and detailed excursion into the mystery of how White's classic came to be is a perfect read for this season: full of grass and insects, pigs and summer rain.
The first two-thirds or so of The Story of Charlotte's Web recounts White's life up to his 50s, when he began writing his masterpiece. Good as it is, the final section of Sims' book is the real revelation — not only about the influences on Charlotte's Web, but about just how hard it was for White to write despite the fact that his style always seemed effortless. White was encouraged to attempt children's fiction by his wife, Katherine White, who was the fiction editor of The New Yorker and a regular reviewer of children's literature. She had urged him to write his first children's book, Stuart Little, which was published in 1945 and had taken him over six years to write.
White also took inspiration from the 1920s newspaper columnist Don Marquis, who wrote acclaimed stories about a poetic typing cockroach named Archy. White was adamant that, like Archy, his fictional animal characters should not be cute but should remain true to their predatory and, in the case of Wilbur, their manure-loving, messy nature. The notes that White made for Charlotte's Web — some of which Sims reprints here — show a multitude of false starts and cross outs. White finished the first draft of the novel in 1951 and then let it sit for a year.
He said in a letter to his patient editor: "I've recently finished another children's book, but have put it away to ripen (let the body heat out of it). It doesn't satisfy me the way it is and I think eventually I shall rewrite it pretty much." When Charlotte's Web finally came out in October 1952, most of the reviews were laudatory, except for one written by Anne Carroll Moore, the influential children's division librarian for the New York Public Library. Years earlier, Moore had panned Stuart Little and now she slammed Charlotte's Web for leaving the human character of Fern "undeveloped."
White's own later estimation of his work is, perhaps, most touching. In old age, when he was suffering from Alzheimer's, White liked to have his own essays and books read to him. Sometimes, White would ask who wrote what he was listening to, and his chief reader, his son Joe, would tell him, "You did, Dad." Sims says White "would think about this odd fact for a moment and sometimes murmur, 'Not bad.' "